Florida Keys News
Sunday, June 1, 2014
VA uproar ignites political battles

TALLAHASSEE: Gov. Rick Scott's threat to sue the federal government in response to Veterans Health Administration hospitals turning away his state inspectors is purely political showboating, a Florida Keys' congressional representative said.

"To inject this with politics is a huge mistake," said U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia, D-South Florida, in an interview Friday. "We need to fix the problem."

Scott, who is running for re-election against former Gov. Charlie Crist, now a Democrat, said Wednesday he asked state hospital administrators to take legal action to "protect the lives of our heroes."

With 1.6 million veterans, Florida has the third largest veterans population in the U.S., below California and Texas, respectively.

Wartime veterans make up 75 percent of Florida's veterans population, according to the state Department of Veterans Affairs.

The governor's announcement came as 26 V.A. facilities nationwide are under investigation over allegations about treatment delays and secret waiting lists created to hide delays in care.

In April, state officials visited V.A. hospitals in West Palm Beach, Bay Pines, Miami, Lake City, Gainesville and Tampa and returned to the Gainesville hospital in May.

But they were turned away from the federally run centers, which Veterans Affairs leaders said aren't subject to Florida laws.

Garcia said he hasn't had any problem gaining access to V.A. hospitals and clinics in his district, including Homestead, Key Largo and Key West, where he has interviewed patients.

Complaints are over lengthy wait times for appointments and not the quality of care available, Garcia said.

In response to Scott's promise of legal action, federal officials suggested a sit-down with his administration.

By Friday, the Veterans Affairs Secretary Gen. Eric Shinseki had resigned, apologizing for the system's blunders and agreeing with an internal report released Wednesday that concluded the entire V.A. health system was lacking in care.

"While the problems facing the V.A. were not necessarily created by Secretary Shinseki, new leadership is in order to right this ship," Garcia said in a statement. "We can now move forward with a fresh start to thoroughly examine and address the clearly widespread issues facing the V.A. and ensure they never happen again."

Scott agreed with Garcia's take on the resignation.

"Our goal is to improve the quality of care for veterans using these hospitals in Florida," Scott said in a statement Friday. "In order to accomplish this goal, a big injection of transparency and accountability is needed."

The governor reiterated his plan for a lawsuit.

"That is why, today, AHCA submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) appeal for the records the federal Department of Veterans Affairs has failed to provide by the deadline stated in public records law. This action is independent of the lawsuit AHCA is preparing for the right to gain access to the V.A. hospitals. Today's news is a step forward, but our administration will continue to hold the V.A. accountable to the veterans they serve," Scott said in his statement.

Scott responded by announcing Florida's Agency for Health Care Administration (AHCA) needed to make inspections as part of its job.

"State inspectors have been blocked by federal officials from carrying out their mission of ensuring facilities in Florida meet the health care needs of our veterans," Scott said in a statement Wednesday. "I have asked AHCA to sue the federal veterans affairs agency to shine a light on their activities, and protect the lives of our heroes who have earned nothing short of access to the best care possible."

gfilosa@keysnews.com

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